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Group forms for unincorporation

June 27, 2018
Jessica Salmond - News Editor (jsalmond@breezenewspapers.com) , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

The Town of Fort Myers Beach is 22.5 years old.

And for some, that might just be old enough.

A movement to unincorporate the town is growing on the island.

"Free Our Beach" has a website, email and P.O. Box set up. Its members have hired a political consultant: Philip Nichols of Whitestar Strategies out of Georgia.

The group has registered as a not for profit 501(c)4. The vice president is listed as Arnold Mausser, however, Nichols said Mausser has now moved to president and Robby Robinson has been selected as vice president. The secretary is Marty Weit, all of Fort Myers Beach. The original president was Chuck Bodenhafer, but he has since stepped down. The group incorporated in March.

In an interview over the phone, Nichols said his company has been hired to put together the start of an unincorporation campaign.

He said there's only been one other voter-driven town dissolution in Florida in the last 20 years, in Bay County.

"It's not a common occurrence," he said.

Nichols has worked on multiple local political campaigns, including Lee County Commissioners Cecil Pendergrass and Larry Kiker and Town Council Member Bruce Butcher.

An email from Nichols to the Save Our Beach email list was forwarded to the Fort Myers Beach Observer. Other recipients of the email were not disclosed.

In it, Nichols mentions a May 30 meeting that occurred, the first meeting that gathered those interested in discussing unincorporation together.

The group is raising money, and the email included an attached petition for people who want a referendum on unincorporation put on a future ballot.

According to Nichols, one of the group's key talking points is: "We all have a choice to make, Representation or Intimidation, It is time for you to choose. It is terrible when residents and business owners have to live in fear of the government that is suppose to represent you. Now is the time to stand up and be heard. Save Our Beach!"

"There's a growing discontentment about how the local government has been run and how people have been treated by the government," Nichols said.

Conversations about the current state of the government have not been positive in some areas of the community.

Unincorporation was brought up at a recent Estero Island Taxpayers Association meeting.

At the meeting, attendees and panel speakers expressed frustration at what some of them said was a lack of "common sense" on the town's approach to code enforcement.

Since that meeting, the town council held a management and planning meeting, part of which covered code enforcement. While the majority agreed to stay proactive, the council members did ask the town manager for a better system of approaching violators based on the severity of the situation.

Mausser is a Realtor on Fort Myers Beach. He is an independent contractor for Lahaina Realty and also owns his own business, The Mausser Team Waterfront Specialists. He did not respond to requests for interviews in time for this story.

Paula Kiker, owner of Lahaina Realty, said her business itself is not involved in the unincorporation movement.

But Kiker said she has her own, personal opinion about the situation.

"I am in favor of any avenue that protects all taxpayers on Fort Myers Beach," she said. "The council has made it clear they only need to represent the voter base."

Kiker lived on the beach for 23 years with her husband, Larry, the District 3 County Commissioner. Now they live off-island - and she feels that she no longer has a voice.

"The majority of people are just taxpayers," she said. "Something has to be done. I never have an issue with a petition going to the people to vote. It's been very clear to me and the clients I represent, they get up before council and the council doesn't want to listen."

Bodenhafer is a member of the board of the Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce and, although Bodenhafer has stepped down from Free Our Beach effort, Chamber President Jacki Liszak wanted to make clear that the Chamber is not involved with Free Our Beach.

"The Chamber is neutral, as always," she said.

Council Member Anita Cereceda, who was one of the first members of council when the town incorporated, said she felt emotional when she learned of the unincorporation movement.

"It made me feel as if we have failed. Failed to make everyone feel a part of this community as I do, and failed to communicate in a better way," she said. "As much of a right as I have to wave a flag of everything I think is great, they have the same right to wave a flag about what is wrong with this community."

Cereceda said as the town has aged, the pendulum has often had swings of too strict and too loose government styles, and a "period of intensity" follows either extreme in order for the town to balance itself.

"I think there's been a period of correction, tightening up it may be too tight now, but the town will find its way back to normal," she said. "I believe the town will continue to thrive and survive."

Mayor Tracey Gore said before she got on town council, she didn't support incorporation. She decided to run because she didn't feel that residents were being represented by the council. But now that the town has existed for two decades and taken on more responsibilities, she thinks returning to county control would be frightening. The town has invested in Bay Oaks Recreation Center with Director Sean De Palma, and with the Mound House with Director Alison Geisen, as well as the town's waterlines and the stormwater system.

"Do you think the county will pay for any of that?" she said. "If (unincorporation) happens, this will be nothing but a cash cow for the county."

The residents would lose local control, and they wouldn't have the same access to the county commissioners as they do to the town council, she said.

"I just see the island getting better," she said. "Everybody on the Town Council is trying to do their best."

Nichols said the next step in the Free Our Beach movement will be to send out petitions to every registered voter on the island. He's also putting together a TV commercial, and the organization plans to have regular meetings after summer when seasonal residents return.

To get a referendum on a March municipal ballot, the organization will need to get 25 percent of the voter population, or about 1,500 people, to sign petitions.

"It's difficult when you have a situation like this," Nichols said. "Only registered voters can sign a petition."

The organization's email is FreeOurBeach@gmail.com. Its website is freeourbeach.com.

 
 

 

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